Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 8

This time, it was an entire game's worth of struggles. Offensive line is finally proving to be the weak spot it seemed to be coming into the season, and with special teams still performing poorly, there's just too much for the defense to handle even when it's at the top of its game.

Penalties are becoming an issue again. Suh is obviously branded as a dirty player, and unfortunately he seems unaware that perception is at least as important as reality, and the longer this lasts, the less likely it is that there is a difference. (Rodney Harrison, in talking about this, still didn't think he himself was a dirty player. Case in point.)

Back-to-back losses in games where they were favored, substantially in the latter, should have a big impact on projections. Let's see:

Massey projections:
Week 8: at Denver, favorite
Week 9: bye
Week 10: at Chicago, underdog (moved down)
Week 11: Carolina, heavy favorite (moved down)
Week 12: Green Bay, underdog (moved down)
Week 13: at New Orleans, underdog (moved down)
Week 14: Minnesota, heavy favorite (moved down)
Week 15: at Oakland, favorite (moved up)
Week 16: San Diego, heavy favorite
Week 17: at Green Bay, heavy underdog

Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.

So yeah, there was some movement. The loss of Jason Campbell pushed the Raiders game to favorite status (63%), but that was about it. This is probably a more accurate reflection of the Lions' strength. Estimated wins are right at 10, which matches the game-by-game projections.

The Playoff Odds report is below:
Mean wins: 9.7, down 0.5
Playoffs: 67.6%, down 13.0 points
Division title: 9.9%, down 11.9 points
Top seed: 2.7%, down 4.5 points
NFC title: 4.5%, down 3.2 points
Super Bowl win: 1.9%, down 1.4 points
15-1 record: off the board

Being two losses back means the division is pretty much gone; yes, the Packers are on the schedule twice, but in neither game is Detroit favored, and does this look like a team that can beat Green Bay? No. The one benefit so far is that the Lions' schedule is turning out to be more difficult than it seemed at first, so that's making the 5-2 record better than it might otherwise be. Having a two-in-three shot at a playoff spot is still pretty good.

So, after falling in consecutive week to teams that weren't playing as well as the Lions but managed to turn it around, Detroit has a game that they simply must win. If you can't beat bad teams, you aren't a playoff team. Fortunately, the Broncos have benched their starting QB and are using a running back in his place. Even if Stafford is not 100%, the Lions should completely shut down TEBOWTEBOWTEBOW and the Denver offense. Lions, 19-8.

Last week: predicted 27-17, actual 16-23

Current mood: disappointed

NFL Week 7: A mess in the NFC

The Packers continue to win, everyone else in the NFC seems to have 4 wins, and some guy starts in Denver.
  • This seems to be more like the 2007 Lions than the 1957 Lions. For the second straight week, the Lions turn in a thoroughly unimpressive performance at home. Just 1 for 12 on third downs, Stafford completing less than 50% of his passes, good run defense except for one huge run that set up a scoring play, 10 penalties, including a few that occurred at particularly bad times, bad coverage on special teams, no touchdowns in the red zone ... Detroit looks nothing like the team that blew out Kansas City and knocked off Tampa Bay and Dallas on the road. Sure, maybe San Francisco and Atlanta are both playoff-caliber teams, but the Lions have plenty of games left against those teams, and if they can't straighten out these issues, they're going to finish 7-9 and wonder what might have been.
  • For their part, the Falcons were not particularly impressive on offensive, but they did enough to get the job done. 7 of 17 on third downs doesn't sound great, but some of those were long conversions at the Lions' expense. Atlanta made some costly mistakes of their own, including throwing an interception deep in Detroit territory and committing a penalty that brought back a kickoff return TD, but they outplayed Detroit on the road and came away with a big win. Neither of these teams are likely to win their divisions, so this could be a key to determining wild-card position, as long as both teams can stay in the race.
  • TEBOWTEBOWTEBOWTEBOW. You have, I'm sure, already heard how TIM TEBOW led a miraculous comeback to vault the Broncos past the Dolphins in overtime on the road, and how afterward at the press conference, he walked on water. You may not have heard that he completed less than half of his passes for a paltry 161 yards, or that Denver managed a grand total of 0 points in the game's first 57 minutes against a winless team. This was an ugly win, exactly the type of game that fools people into thinking a quarterback is exactly as good as his record. With the Chargers and Raiders struggling, Denver could get back into contention in the West with a solid QB, but Tebow is not that QB. He'll pull out a couple of wins, defensive coordinators will figure out how to stop him, and the Broncos will muddle along in last place, continuing to live out the curse of the McDaniels era.
  • This game may be the one that costs Tony Sparano his job ... letting a winnable game against a weak team with a young QB get away. Failing to recover an onside kick, giving up a tying two-point conversion by allowing a rushing QB to run, fumbling the ball away in overtime. Converting just 3 of 14 third-down attempts. Averaging just 3 yards per carry. Unlike Denver, Miami is in a division with three playoff-caliber teams, and the difference between the top and the bottom is obvious. There simply isn't enough talent in Miami, especially not with Chad Henne out. The next coach and GM will have to rebuild this roster nearly from scratch ... as for the interim coach, he'll have to push the existing pieces around to squeak out a win or two to salvage some degree of respectability. The Colts have an excuse for being winless, but the Dolphins do not.
  • Remember when the Chargers were more than happy to have Philip Rivers? This year is not that year. To be fair, the question about the Jets has never been the defense, but still, you have to have the feeling that Rivers simply isn't good enough to win these games. (Then again, he's constantly being asked to work with second-tier wide receivers, and Antonio Gates still isn't 100%.) 16 for 32, two interceptions, under 200 yards passing ... true, the inability to keep Darren Sproles is also a factor, but there's clearly something missing in San Diego. Baltimore and New England are already in full playoff mode, there are a handful of other teams right behind them, and I can't say that the Chargers would be favored to beat any of them in the playoffs. 
  • Mark Sanchez finally found an appropriate receiver to lock onto in the red zone. The Jets continue to rely heavily on the run to take the load off their inaccurate QB (although if you can explain why LaDainian Tomlinson got the start today, I'd love to hear it; his days of being a feature back are long behind him), and it turned out to be just enough against the Chargers. Eventually, Rex Ryan will have to figure out how to make Sanchez into an NFL quarterback; the Jets are easy to beat if you stop the run, and there are a few defenses in each conference equipped to do it. 
  • The Bears picked up an unimpressive win in London to climb back into the playoff hunt, if such a thing can be said in October. It was important for Chicago because you can only lose so many early-season games when the division leader is unbeaten and half of the conference seems to be above .500. Chicago built a nice 21-5 lead, but made enough mistakes to let Tampa Bay pull within three late in the fourth. It seems the Bears haven't yet figured out how to run a Martz offense at its best ... or perhaps Martz hasn't figured out that his ideal offense requires superstars at all skill positions to be effective. (That's code for "it's a gimmick that is no longer viable at this level.") Martz will have to figure out how to run more clock with this offense, which seems odd given that Matt Forte is part of it. The decision not to re-sign him looks dumber and dumber every week: it's clear that the offensive line can't help Cutler carry the offense, and with a lesser RB, those long runs off broken tackles would become short runs.
  • Tampa Bay is collecting a nice set of losses against playoff-caliber teams (Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco). That's small consolation for Raheem Morris, who has to be thinking that this is going to be yet another season where the Bucs are just short of the playoffs. Josh Freeman is still young and still needs to learn when not to throw the ball ... at least two of his four interceptions were passes into solid coverage. This isn't quite the same as losing at home, but it was still a game Tampa Bay could have won. Fortunately, the Bucs have a bye this week (as is standard for teams returning from London), so Freeman will have an extra week to practice avoiding defenders before meeting the Saints in Week 9.
  • Soooooo ... the Texans don't miss Andre Johnson and Mario Williams all that much, I guess. Just when it looked like the South was up for grabs with those key injuries, Houston went into Tennessee and crushed the Titans. Schaub was extremely efficient (18 for 23, 2 TDs, no picks), Foster was dangerous on the ground and in the passing game as well (25 carries for 115 yards, 5 receptions for 119 yards, including a 78-yard TD), and Houston allowed Tennessee to convert just 2 of 10 on third down. The Texans' lead is just half a game, but on Sunday, it seemed like so much more.
  • The Titans have to feel that they're still in the hunt in the South, but the strength in the North and East pretty much ensures that there will not be a wild-card spot available for other teams, so it's either the division or nothing. Tennessee doesn't play Houston again until the final week of the season, which is good: they didn't really stop anything the Texans did, and they couldn't mount any offense of their own. With the NFC South on the schedule, the Titans don't have many easy games left; they have two games with Indianapolis and one with Jacksonville, but the rest will be tough. 
  • All of a sudden, Washington looks like the team we thought they'd be coming into the season and not the team that was alone atop the NFC East. Washington was -3 in turnovers against Carolina, and that made all the difference. Now that Rex Grossman is back to being the usual Florida quarterback in the NFL, Washington's offense looks like a bunch of backups, which is basically what it is: Grossman or Beck at QB, Hightower at RB, a bunch of meh guys at WR ... they're going to have to get some quality performances out of those guys to make a run at a wild-card spot, but I think it's unlikely this team will be able to reproduce their early-season success.
  • Cam Newton is still doing the same things he did at Auburn: run the ball, throw the ball, run some more, throw some more. Against weaker defenses, it works pretty well, and Washington's defense played the part admirably. Carolina probably needs another year or two to get enough talent to be able to rely less on Newton, which I think is a requirement at this level: QBs who do a lot of running take a lot of shots, and few teams have capable backups, especially teams who picked a QB #1 overall even though they already had a young QB on their roster.
  • Seattle is a bad team. Charlie Whitehurst completed 40% of his passes and threw for under 100 yards. The Seahawks were just 2 of 12 on third down. They made only one red zone trip and did not get a TD out of it. And yet, the defending division champs are 2-4 and actually beat the Giants on the road. They don't look anywhere near as good as the 49ers and are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs again, but those wins coupled with some bad seasons in other cities have already pushed Seattle well out of range of Andrew Luck, assuming that Pete Carroll realizes that Tarvaris Jackson is just as bad as Minnesota thought he was. Seattle has plenty of holes to fill, so even without a marquee QB in that spot (Russell Wilson, perhaps?), they'll need that pick and then some. 
  • Pittsburgh is finally rolling into midseason form, which is a good thing; the fast starts by the Bills and Ravens made it look like the Steelers might have some difficulty getting back to the Super Bowl, but at 5-2, they're in a pretty good position, and with the NFC West on their schedule, they have a significant advantage over wild-card competitors in other divisions. Roethlisberger had another solid day (people seem to forget that Mike Tomlin likes to throw to build a lead and then run to protect it), the offense kept the ball away from the Cardinals, and the defense did just enough to keep the game out of reach (1 turnover, 2 sacks, and a safety). Up next: New England and Baltimore at home. Better win those games ...
  • Kevin Kolb is doing what he can in Arizona, but even though he's a substantial upgrade over last year's QB charade, there are too many other flaws on this team to get them more than 3-4 wins, even in the sadness that is the NFC West. Once again, they have no running game, and if Beanie Wells is out for any length of time, "no" may become "absolutely no". Larry Fitzgerald is wasting away, waiting for Kolb to get enough time to find him open or for some other receiver to step up as a legitimate threat. As it is, any DC worth his salt will simply double-cover Fitzgerald and dare the Cardinals to beat him some other way, and Arizona just doesn't have the tools to make that happen.
  • Don't be fooled by this run: the Chiefs are still a bad team. They beat Minnesota by 5 and Indianapolis by 4; sure, they crushed Oakland in Oakland, but that was with crappy Kyle Boller and rusty Carson Palmer at QB. Matt Cassel had yet another unimpressive outing – he's looking more and more like this generation's Scott Mitchell – and this is not an era where you can win consistently by running the ball, not unless you have a top-5 defense as well, and Kansas City does not have that. (Intercepting bad quarterbacks does not make your defense good; that's an expectation, not a bonus.) Still, this was an important win, and if the Chargers slip up again, Kansas City might be making a run at another division title, unworthy though they might be.
  • Yes, it was Jason Campbell, wasn't it? OK, maybe not all Campbell, but the contrast between Campbell's performance and the six-interception ugliness that was Oakland quarterbacking on Sunday was about as stark as, well, Peyton Manning vs. Not Peyton Manning. Oakland ran the ball just about as well as they usually do, but with a horrible passing game instead of a solid one, they handed a mediocre Chiefs team an important division victory, one the Raiders may regret if they end up at 8-8 or 9-7 and just miss a tie for the division. Then again, if Palmer can't learn the offense quickly enough (he admitted he knew maybe 10% of it, no surprise given his lack of reps), the division may not be in reach anyway.
  • The Rams have finished receiving their beatings from the NFC East, and they can't be excited about their next opponent either, not after watching the Saints hang 62 on the Colts on Sunday night. This may be hard to believe, but the Rams are probably worse than the Colts. Sam Bradford is leading yet another desultory passing attack – his ANY/A is a dismal 4.6, right about where it was last year, which should serve as a warning that counting stats frequently don't tell you anything – and St. Louis doesn't have an effective running game, either, as Steven Jackson will no doubt tell you. (I can't imagine what it must be like to be trapped in that offense.) Let's not lump the entire NFC West together again: just like the 49ers are better than the rest, the Rams are significantly worse. Two years after going 0-16, the Lions were 6-10, and they're 5-2 now. Two years after going 1-15, the Rams could well go 0-16.
  • Dallas doesn't look quite as bad now that their losses are to teams who are 5-1, 5-2, and 4-3, and that win over San Francisco looks better every week. Next week's Sunday night game against Philadelphia should determine whether or not the Cowboys are playoff contenders: the Eagles look like anything but, and a win would push Dallas to 4-3 and keep them perfect in the division, plus it might remind people that Tony Romo is. not. the. problem. (Yes, he makes bad decisions under pressure, but in case you haven't noticed, replacement-level QBs are somewhere between bad and terrible, or maybe you didn't see Carson Palmer in Oakland. This is what the Cowboys have, so they better learn to live with it.)
  • Green Bay looked unimpressive in holding off Minnesota for their seventh straight win; once again, the defense simply did not get the job done. As much as we'd like to crown the Packers NFC champs for a second consecutive season, they've simply got too many flaws on defense to justify that label at this point, 7-0 record notwithstanding. They allowed 9 of 16 conversions on third downs, gave up a whopping 7 yards per carry on 31 rushes (exactly what a rookie QB needs in his first start), and nearly blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter against a team known for blowing leads themselves. Mike McCarthy can't be happy with that defense. Perhaps playing with fire has finally burned the Packers: they're still getting plenty of interceptions, but giving up plenty of yards when they don't get picks. Green Bay's 7.1 NY/A was tied for 11th-worst in the league going into the Minnesota game. This year, a solid pass defense is a requirement for winning games. Would you bet on the Packers to beat, say, the Ravens, looking at their respective defenses? I wouldn't either.
  • It's hard to say which spoke more poorly of Donovan McNabb: the fact that he said his benching was a surprise, or the fact that Christian Ponder moved the Vikings well. Minnesota's poor start, coupled with the 5-0 records Detroit and Green Bay posted, immediately pushed the Vikings out of the North picture, and with the number of teams above .500 in the NFC, it's clear they had no chance at a playoff spot, so why not let the kid start? At worst, he'd just be getting NFL-caliber reps, and at best, he'd provide something that McNabb could not (would not?): a mobile QB able to hit his receivers. McNabb was sacked on 9.3% of his dropbacks this season, worse than all but three quarterbacks. Ponder was sacked just twice on 34 dropbacks against Green Bay. The Vikings don't need a Pro Bowl performance at QB, not with Adrian Peterson in the backfield, but they do need someone who can avoid second-and-20 or third-and-15, and Ponder certainly seems to provide that. It's probably too late to salvage anything from this season (Denver is the only game that appears somewhat winnable), but at least their young starter will be better prepared for 2012, when the McNabb experience will be forgotten in Minneapolis.
  • Guess who was fourth in the league in ANY/A? That's right, Curtis Painter. Yes, this is because some teams don't believe in tackling receivers, and perhaps DYAR is a better judge of Painter, putting him 21st in the league, but still, he's much better than I gave him credit for. Perhaps it was just a matter of getting him reps. (Something for Peyton to keep in mind when he comes back: backups with almost literally no experience are going to struggle much more than those who've actually run some plays in practice.) There isn't much point in dwelling on Sunday night's game: a bad team playing at a good team, a weak defense trying to stop a solid offense ... going into that game, we knew New Orleans was a playoff contender and Indianapolis was helpless without Manning, and today we know the very same things. Colts fans would be wise to avert their eyes for the rest of the season, take their 2-14 record and their high draft pick, and hope that #18 is ready to go in 2012.
  • New Orleans wanted to get things back on track after their surprising loss at Tampa Bay, a game that threw the NFC South into confusion. They wanted to reestablish themselves as clear favorites in the division and keep pace with San Francisco for the #2 spot in the NFC and a first-round bye. Well, they certainly seemed to do that. Great teams blow out bad teams, and 62-7 certainly qualifies as a blowout. The Saints may have a shot at an NFL record, as they face the hapless Rams this Sunday, but it'll require some work: the record for most points in consecutive games is held by none other than the 1950 Los Angeles Rams, who posted a stunning 135 points in October against the Colts and Lions, winning 70-27 and 65-24. That team was like an extreme version of the best teams this year: great on offense, bad on defense. (They had to win a playoff with the Bears just to get to the NFL Championship, where they lost to the Browns, 30-28. That had to be a frustrating situation for Chicago, as they swept the Rams during the regular season. Needless to say, tiebreakers weren't in place back in those days.)
  • Monday night's game served as a reminder that Baltimore's offense is just about as good as New England's defense, which is to say that it looks like it'll cost them 2-3 games this season. Having a dominating defense is fine, but you can't expect it to score every game. Jacksonville stopped the Baltimore running game, holding them under 3 Y/C and forcing a fumble, but what was more impressive was holding the passing game to 3.6 Y/A. That isn't going to win any games: by comparison, the worst team in the NFL, the Browns, averages 5.8 Y/A. The Ravens now have two inexplicable losses to AFC South teams; they've beaten the Texans and are all but certain to beat the Colts, but those losses could come back to haunt them, especially if Pittsburgh wins their rematch the week after next. You can't afford to lose games like this in a tough division.
  • Jacksonville is still a bad team with a putrid offense (2 of 16 on third downs, 4.7 Y/A, a tick over 3 Y/C, just 13 first downs), but sometimes the other team gives you chances to win anyway. Three long-distance field goals may have saved Del Rio's job for another week or two, but make no mistake, this team is a wreck. The passing attack is terrible, the running game is hardly effective, special teams have been mediocre (Monday night notwithstanding) ... the defense cannot make up for all of those shortcomings. It's been four years since the Jaguars were any sort of threat, and there's no sign of any overall improvement this season. The newly-improved defense is more than offset by the horrible offense. Neither McCown nor Gabbert has done anything with the passing game: when the two lowest DVOAs are on your team, it isn't just the QBs, although it's worth pointing out that neither has much of a pedigree (McCown did nothing in the past to indicate he's an NFL-caliber QB, and of course Gabbert is a rookie). Jacksonville fans deserve better than this ... and you have to wonder if the NFL isn't watching this situation carefully. Not even Goodell would try to force an expansion team into the current setup, which means that when Los Angeles asks for a team again, they're going to get an existing team. I know, you're looking at the AFC South and saying "Tennessee, Indianapolis, Houston ... Los Angeles?" My answer to that: St. Louis Rams. They're a much better geographic fit for the South than the NFC West, and honestly, you'd have a much easier time selling that switch than pulling a team out of the AFC West. Those teams have played together for 50 years. (OK, 51. The AFL West in 1960 was the LA Chargers, the Dallas Texans, Oakland and Denver.)
The Packers seem to be a step ahead of everyone else; San Francisco has locked down the NFC West, but the other six divisions are tightly contested. The Colts, Dolphins and Vikings (plus the rest of the NFC West) are planning for next year already, with the Panthers, Broncos and Jaguars right behind them. Andrew Luck may be the next Peyton Manning (or Ryan Leaf), but there's plenty of talent behind him, and some of these GMs have to be looking at a Manti Te'o (would you play another season at Notre Dame?) or a Michael Floyd as a possible solution to this season's problems. (How much easier would it be for Gabbert if he had Floyd to throw to?)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 7

Once again, first-half struggles followed by ... oh wait, there was no second-half dominance. The Lions defense played fairly well, but failed to contain Frank Gore on two long runs. One led to a touchdown and the other led to a field goal; those two plays were arguably the difference.

On the other hand, Detroit did keep San Francisco in check, and even with those plays, the Lions had two chances to win, thanks in part to conservative playcalling by the 49ers. Stafford was inaccurate on too many plays, and the Lions simply couldn't recover.

Massey projections:
Week 7: Atlanta, heavy favorite (moved down)
Week 8: at Denver, favorite (moved down)
Week 9: bye
Week 10: at Chicago, tossup (moved down)
Week 11: Carolina, overwhelming favorite
Week 12: Green Bay, slight underdog
Week 13: at New Orleans, slight underdog
Week 14: Minnesota, overwhelming favorite
Week 15: at Oakland, slight favorite
Week 16: San Diego, heavy favorite
Week 17: at Green Bay, heavy underdog

Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.

As you might expect, the loss to San Francisco moved a few games down one category, most notably the post-bye game in Chicago. However, the New Orleans game didn't move back into underdog status, partly because the Saints lost as well. It's notable that the game in New Orleans is the hardest remaining home game for the Saints: the Giants game the week before (on Monday night) is 84%, Atlanta is 81%, and Tampa Bay's return visit is 82%. Detroit is 60%.

Detroit's estimated wins, according to Massey, are 11.25. Sorry I missed that last week.

The Playoff Odds report is below:
Mean wins: 10.2, down 0.6
Playoffs: 80.6%, down 9.3 points
Division title: 21.8%, down 9.7 points
Top seed: 7.2%, down 10.6 points
NFC title: 7.7%, down 4.2 points
Super Bowl win: 3.3%, down 2.2 points
15-1 record: 0.1%, down 0.7 points

Obviously there's a drop across the board, mostly due to the loss (and the subsequent rise in San Francisco's future), but also due to other results in the conference. Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and Chicago all jumped at least 10 points in overall playoff chances, so that has to come from somewhere. Green Bay is disappearing into the distance, and another loss prior to Thanksgiving will virtually wrap up the division for the Packers.

This is a must-win game for the Lions (well, most of them are, in playoff terms, because you can't lose ground and you certainly can't lose to a fellow wild-card contender). One home loss is unavoidable now; two of them would be a problem. Atlanta is not impressive, and the Lions must demonstrate it. FO actually likes Atlanta better than Detroit, but I'm not buying it. Lions, 27-17.

Last week: predicted 27-24, actual 19-25

Current mood: concerned

NFL Week 6: The Packers and the rest

The Colts and Packers are perfect through six games; everyone else seems jumbled somewhere in between. Mike Carey saves the NFL from itself.
  •  The Lions finally ran out of breaks: even though they forced two turnovers and had none themselves, two long runs by Frank Gore set up 10 points Detroit couldn't afford to give up. Stafford completed only 56% of his passes, and the Lions were just 2 of 15 on third downs. Their plan to force Alex Smith to win it for the 49ers did not work at all, and if it hadn't been for a surprise reversal on Nate Burleson's catch in the end zone, they might not even have been close in the fourth quarter. (Related note: at what point does the NFL realize that its ridiculous criteria for end zone catches is a safety issue for receivers? If a catch isn't made until the receiver comes to a complete stop with the ball and poses for at least 10 pictures, he's a legal target, and do we really want defenders trying to separate receiver from ball at a point where the play is instantly over once possession is established, or receivers falling into safety netting or photographers or whatever?)
  • San Francisco might be a seriously flawed team, but it's only the case on one side of the ball. As long as the defense keeps it close, they should have a chance to win those games. Alex Smith did throw a key touchdown pass, but he completed just over half of his passes, and only a couple for decent gains. If Detroit had added another score to their early 10-0 lead, it's doubtful the 49ers could have come back. You can't build a winning team without a passing game in the NFL; Harbaugh will learn that come playoff time. (The 49ers are a lock; I doubt any other NFL West team will win 5 games.) Penalties might also be a problem. This isn't the kind of offense that can convert 2nd-and-20 or 3rd-and-17 more than once a month, not when you know their best play is a draw to Gore.
  • Carolina had the chance to make a statement in Atlanta, and the statement was "still a bad team." Cam Newton had a just-a-rookie game for a change, the defense still isn't any good, and there isn't much to suggest that the Panthers have a running game aside from Newton. Granted, you can't fix a 1-15 team in one season, but Newton's performance over the last few weeks may have caused people to forget that. Carolina is still a bad team in a weaker-than-expected division.
  • Atlanta finally paired a good effort from its defense with a good game from the offense, but then it was Carolina's defense. A team that was supposed to contend for the NFC title is instead sitting at an unimpressive 3-3 and traveling to play a 5-1 Detroit squad that may be as angry on Sunday as their coach was yesterday: it'll be a great chance for the Falcons to prove that they really are contenders, but they'll have to play a better game than they've shown to this point. Right now, Atlanta doesn't seem to be in the same class as New Orleans, and they're not exactly on track for a wild-card spot, not at .500 with some tough games (including both Saints games) coming after their bye.
  • Curtis Painter is showing that he can complete passes in the Indianapolis offense, which is no mean feat when they can basically put up signs saying "Don't bother stopping the run, we'll stop ourselves", but he hasn't shown that he can get anything other than underneath completions unless a defender is nice enough to play flag football when Pierre Garçon is the receiver. This team isn't good enough to rely on 14-play drives to score touchdowns: Painter has to be able to get the ball downfield. (Easier said than done with the Colts' OL, I suppose.)
  • Unlike Painter, Andy Dalton did complete some longer passes, but once again, the Bengals are having trouble getting into the end zone. They put up decent yardage totals but scored just two offensive touchdowns, and they were in danger of losing to a bad Indianapolis team prior to Garçon's fumble and Carlos Dunlap's game-clinching return. Cincinnati is making the most of its easy early-season schedule, but two games remain with both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and they will have to learn to score  touchdowns if they want to make a serious run at a playoff spot. 
  • Sam Bradford threw a lot of passes, got a lot of yards, and the Rams were soundly beaten again. I think at this point, people have figured out that he wasn't all that ... it's funny how counting stats are so easily overrated when the team is winning, but placed in proper context when the team is losing. (That should tell you something about the average person's ability to understand context.) The easiest non-divisional game St. Louis has left is at Cleveland, so if the Cardinals and Seahawks aren't nice enough to gift-wrap a game, the Rams could well match the 2008 Lions. Would it be worth trading down from #1, knowing that someone will want to select Andrew Luck? Hopefully Rams fans won't have to find out.
  • With Detroit's loss, Green Bay is alone atop the NFL at 6-0; well, alone in record. It should have already been clear that they were alone in quality. At this point, the Packers look exactly like defending Super Bowl champions that got better as players healed. The Rams actually slowed Green Bay's running game effectively and held the Packers to 4 of 13 on third downs, but the 93-yarder to Jordy Nelson turned a 10-0 game into game over at 17-0 (this Rams team couldn't score 10 on most teams), and after the Rodgers-to-Driver TD, McCarthy could put the offense on cruise. The Packers should have an easy win over Minnesota before their bye; after that, asking when they might lose is probably the same question as asking when they'll rest their starters. Their first post-bye game is at San Diego, so that might be a test, and they have back-to-back road games against the Lions and Giants, but right now, Green Bay looks good enough to beat anyone, anywhere.
  • Here's the difference between being a rising team and a contender: a Bills team just looking to improve would have considered the Giants loss a good sign, in that they were able to play a decent team on the road and nearly steal a win. This Buffalo team has to be looking at it as a disappointment, given the competition they'll face in the division and for wild-card spots. Perhaps their two long first-quarter touchdowns made the game closer than it should have been, but the Bills were still in a position to win it late in the fourth until Fitzpatrick's second interception gave the Giants a chance to win it themselves. Losses like this could leave the Bills at 9-7 or 10-6 looking in instead of at 10-6 or 11-5 and planning for January road games.
  • The Giants are lucky they pulled this game out. After their bye, they host the Dolphins, which should make them 5-2, and then we'll find out how good they are: with a six-game stretch against New England, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, and Dallas, if New York isn't a playoff-caliber team, their record will reflect it. Four of those six games are on the road, and one of the remaining two is the Green Bay game, so if the Giants do make the playoffs, they'll have earned it.
  • Blaine Gabbert had another unimpressive day, which gives you an idea of how bad Luke McCown was playing, and also an idea of how difficult it must have been for Jack Del Rio to make that move. (Yes, I'm going to bring this up every week it looks like the Jaguars don't have a good QB.) If it really was a good decision, then it means that Garrard was playing so poorly that Del Rio would rather choose between an untested rookie and a tried-and-failed veteran. Still, the Jaguars deserve credit for keeping this game close. It's a shame they don't have a better quarterback, though, because neither Tennessee nor Houston looks like a solid team, and with a decent offense, Jacksonville could be contending in the division.
  • The Steelers don't look anything like a contender. Roethlisberger had another unimpressive game; Pittsburgh is lucky that Jacksonville isn't really in a position to win close games, not until Gabbert becomes more accustomed to games at NFL speeds. The Steelers visit Arizona in a game that will look nothing like their Super Bowl matchup, but they then host New England and Baltimore, followed by a game at Cincinnati before their Week 11 bye. Unless Mike Tomlin can figure out how to fix the problems we've seen in the last few weeks, that stretch of games could well put Pittsburgh in a hole that not even a favorable post-bye schedule can help them escape.
  • The Eagles finally tore up the emperor's new quarterback, revealing Rex Grossman as what we all thought he was, but after building a 20-0 lead, Philadelphia went scoreless the rest of the game. Michael Vick was banged up again and still doesn't look capable of running this offense at maximum efficiency; it's possible that the Redskins are actually a good team, even with the Rex Grossman Experience, and that the second-half performance by the Eagles' offense is excusable, but it's more likely that somehow this collection of five-star free agents is just another mediocre team in the pool of NFC teams described as Not Like Green Bay.
  • Four of Washington's five games have been close this year, and the exception was the season opener against the Giants. It's hard to say if Shanahan needs to stick with John Beck or if it's worth taking a chance on the Rex Grossman Experience moving forward. Maybe the Eagles' defense was playing as advertised ... but if that's so, then San Francisco and Dallas should expose the same weaknesses we saw Sunday. Is Washington better off getting Beck first-team reps to prepare him for those games? The Carolina game might be a good time for that. (My guess is that Shanahan will start Grossman in Carolina, where he'll put up big numbers, and everything will appear to be fine until the Bills sack him six times and San Francisco intercepts him four times. You can't fake being a good QB, and Grossman isn't one; he's already reverting to form.)
  • The Browns have the misfortune to be in a surprisingly tough division at a time when a lack of talent and a new coach will probably keep them at the bottom of the division. Colt McCoy may become a decent quarterback; the question is whether he'll have enough time in a single system to become one in Cleveland. Browns fans were very happy to be awarded an expansion franchise when Modell took the original Browns to Baltimore, but there's yet to be any signs that Cleveland 2.0 is anything like the Jim Brown version of 1.0. (As with the Lions, it's understandable that young fans might not realize that Cleveland's not always been like this, whether it was during those days or even the Bernie Kosar days.)
  • The injury to Jason Campbell may be a worst-case scenario for both Campbell and the Raiders. Oakland really looked like they could give San Diego a run for their money in the West (a necessity, given the depth of the AFC). Without him, though, it'll be tough, especially if he does miss the rest of the season. Kansas City, the bye week, and Denver give whoever his replacement is three weeks to get in sync before the tough part of the schedule: four games against the NFC North plus two games with San Diego. (Miami and Kansas City are thrown in to pad Oakland's win total.) Can Kyle Boller do well enough to keep Oakland competitive? It's not impossible for someone like Carson Palmer to come in cold and pick up the offense, but even if Mike Brown would free up Palmer, and even if the Raiders could afford to give Cincinnati what they need for him, there's no guarantee that he'd be 100% by the Denver game, and a weak performance against the Chiefs could cost the Raiders a shot at the division. When you can't be sure how many wins you'll need to make the playoffs, you have to win games against weaker opponents.
  • There wasn't really much that Gary Kubiak could take away from the loss at Baltimore. The Texans without Andre Johnson and Mario Williams aren't as good as the Ravens? Well, we knew that. Next week's game will be a better test. The Texans don't necessarily need to win at Tennessee to win the division, but if it's not close, it'll be a sign of a bigger problem. Houston seems something like the AFC equivalent of Detroit: when the passing game is working, they can seem unstoppable, but if you shut down the pass, you shut down the team.
  • The Ravens have to be looking at that Tennessee game and wondering what might have been. Granted, they've looked good enough outside that game to believe they'll be a playoff team at the very least, and with Pittsburgh's struggle, Baltimore could very well win the North, but they don't have much of a lead on either the Steelers or the Bengals, and it's too easy to stumble once or twice and find yourselves looking up when you should be looking down. The Ravens played a sloppy game (-2 in turnovers, 3 for 11 on third downs) and got away with it because their opponents were missing key players. They may not be so lucky the next time they play poorly.
  • Tony Romo's play may be far from consistent, but few people have questioned Dallas' defense. Against New England, they did almost everything necessary for a win – 3 sacks, 4 turnovers – but their performance on the final drive wasn't good enough. New England moved 80 yards in 10 plays, getting the ball with 2:31 left, and they faced a third down only once on the drive. Three times, New England got more than 10 yards on first down. Keep in mind that the Patriots had only one timeout left, so any play to the middle of the field would have made it difficult to score. They certainly don't deserve all the blame, and New England's offense is one of the best in the league; it's just a shame that the final drive may be what people remember. If Dallas makes the playoffs, the defense will deserve more credit than they're likely to get.
  • Well, here we are again. Going into the bye week, the Patriots stand atop the AFC at 5-1, and the loss to Buffalo looks less important (as a potential tiebreaker) each week. New England obviously has defensive issues, but I'll again draw comparisons to the Colts' Super Bowl champs: if your offense is good enough during the season, you only need a solid defense for three weeks, the playoff weeks. The Patriots bent a lot against Dallas but made the Cowboys kick from the red zone twice, and that turned out to make the difference. Buffalo will have to visit Dallas later this season, and the Patriots will host the Giants; obviously this kind of evens out, but right now it seems that the Bills are giving away the advantage they gained from that Week 3 win over New England.
  • Just when we thought New Orleans was running away with the South, the Bucs brought them right back into the race. Drew Brees will want this game back: any time you're -4 in turnovers, you can bet there are mistakes you made that had an impact on the final result. The fact that Tampa Bay only won by 6 says quite a bit about what the Saints' defense was able to do, and of course losing a road game doesn't hurt as much as losing at home does, but Sean Payton has to be feeling the pain of more than just his sideline collision today. Fortunately, New Orleans gets two of the three remaining winless teams next, St. Louis and Indianapolis, followed by the Bucs' return visit to New Orleans. The Saints are also a Week 11 bye team, and if they beat Tampa Bay and then Atlanta (in Atlanta), they should be 8-2 and safely in command of the South.
  • Josh Freeman did a good job Sunday against New Orleans, getting Tampa Bay back into the playoff picture. The Bucs' losses to Detroit and San Francisco don't look so bad now that both teams are 5-1, and a win against Chicago would go a long way toward keeping Raheem Morris' team in the hunt, but they'd better win it: after their bye, they have a four-game stretch that is one of the toughest in the NFL, with a home game against Houston among road games at New Orleans, Green Bay, and Tennessee. 
  • Donovan McNabb was actually 19 of 24 against Chicago, believe it or not. Does that make up for turtling in the end zone? Probably not. (You had to see it to believe it: with the blitz coming, McNabb simply ducked down in the end zone, costing Minnesota two points, when all he had to do was lunge forward to set up a couple of runs up the middle and a punt out of the back of the end zone.) That signing had to be one of the worst moves in the offseason: in a division with arguably the best pressure in the NFL, the Vikings sign a guy who is probably the worst combination of old and formerly-mobile and who has bad mechanics to boot (not that he'll admit it), and as a result, he's been sacked 16 times in Minnesota's six games, fifth-worst in the NFL. The Vikings don't need much of a passing game when the run is working as well as it is, but they're not getting anything at all with McNabb at the controls. Christian Ponder looked good enough in mop-up time that you have to wonder if it isn't time to make the switch. McNabb isn't getting any better, and Ponder can use all the reps he can get. (Joe Webb certainly couldn't do any worse, either.)
  • Hey, look! Jay Cutler isn't the problem! Well, he certainly wasn't a problem on Sunday. The Bears steamrolled Minnesota in every aspect of the game, looking exactly like a team that earned an NFC Championship spot last season. Granted, that may say more about the Vikings than the Bears, but keeping in mind that good teams blow out bad teams and mediocre teams squeak past them, this may be a good sign for Chicago fans ... well, except the ones that have been insanely chanting for Caleb Hanie. 
  • The Dolphins took another unsurprising step toward being the worst team in the AFC. They don't play the Colts, so they'll have to hope for some help from somewhere. Next week might be a challenge, though: the Broncos and TIM TEBOW come to town, and that might be Miami's best hope for a win. They face Kansas City on the road, and other than that, all the teams left on their schedule have shown some fight. The loss of Chad Henne and the reliance on Reggie Bush as a running back have killed what little offense the Dolphins had, and unless they can make a move at the trade deadline today, they'll have to rely on leftovers to fill the gaping holes on that side of the ball.
  • Mark Sanchez! Knows how to win! I'm sure Gruden said that about 50 times last night. One thing I don't miss about having only over-the-air TV is ignorant statements on MNF. Coming into the game, Miami's pass defense was 31st in DVOA and last in NY/A. Sanchez completed just 56% of his passes and averaged 7.1 NY/A. The Jets punted 8 times against one of the worst defenses in the NFL, in large part because of Sanchez's inability to move the ball in the air: New York called a pass play 10 times on third down. Four passes were incomplete, one was complete but short of the first down, Sanchez was sacked once, one play resulted in a Miami penalty for a first down, and the Jets converted two more for first downs and scored a TD on one. Even giving the Jets credit for the penalty, that's 40% on third downs. Compare that to the Dolphins' previous game against San Diego, where the Chargers called 11 pass plays on third down: San Diego converted four in the air, one from a scramble, and one by a Miami penalty; two more passes were complete but short, and the remaining three were incomplete. 45% doesn't sound much better than 40%, but the first downs came with 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, and 15 yards to go; the Jets' conversions were from 2, 7, 9, and 10. San Diego's median attempt was 9 yards, with seven attempts from 8 yards or more; New York's was 7, with 3 attempts from 8 yards or more. And this is Philip Rivers, who's a competent QB but not in the class of a Rodgers or a Brees. Sanchez simply isn't very good, and there's little evidence to suggest he ever will be ... but people will perpetuate this myth as long as the Jets' defense and special teams win games for the team.
No, no one's eliminated from playoff contention yet, although the Rams are 4.5 games out and the Vikings are 5 games back. There are 15 teams above .500, 8 in the AFC and 7 in the NFC. The only division that looks to be under control right now is (no surprise) the NFC West, where San Francisco has realized that you don't have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your fellow plodders. (I jest, of course: while the 49ers no doubt benefit from their weak division, their wins over 5-1 Detroit and 4-2 Tampa Bay look pretty good right now: they're a touch behind Baltimore for the best SRS in the NFL.)

Next week, the 49ers and Patriots rest to protect their 5-1 records while the Rams and Colts go on the road to continue their winless seasons. Green Bay visits Minnesota in a game that should vault them to 7-0 (reverse jinx, reverse jinx), while the best matchup of records once again features the Lions, as 5-1 Detroit hosts 3-3 Atlanta. The Falcons' record may need the win more than the Lions, but Detroit needs it for confidence reasons. A legitimate contender does not lose back-to-back home games.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 6

Yet again, first-half struggles followed by second-half dominance. It's good as long as you can repeat it, but when you can't ...

We start with Massey projections:
Week 6: San Francisco, favorite (moved down)
Week 7: Atlanta, overwhelming favorite (moved up)
Week 8: at Denver, heavy favorite (moved up)
Week 9: bye
Week 10: at Chicago, favorite (moved up)
Week 11: Carolina, overwhelming favorite
Week 12: Green Bay, slight underdog
Week 13: at New Orleans, slight underdog (moved up)
Week 14: Minnesota, overwhelming favorite
Week 15: at Oakland, slight favorite
Week 16: San Diego, heavy favorite
Week 17: at Green Bay, heavy underdog

Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.

Again, there was a lot of movement this week, with four games moving up and the San Francisco rout moving that game down into "favorite". Note that three of the improvements are road games, including the game at New Orleans, which I think is interesting. Massey has that at 40% for Detroit, most likely a three-point loss.

The Playoff Odds report is below:
Mean wins: 10.8, unchanged
Playoffs: 89.9%, up 5.9 points
Division title: 31.5%, down 3.2 points
Top seed: 17.8%, down 2.5 points
NFC title: 11.9%, down 1.8 points
Super Bowl win: 5.5%, down 0.5 points
15-1 record: 0.8%, up 0.1 points

The playoff movement is a reaction to the win plus losses by possible competitors, while the other movement is due to Green Bay's refusal to look like anything other than a juggernaut. (The 15-1 thing, well, I can't really explain that.)

Massey gives Detroit about a 7-point edge over San Francisco. Vegas shows them as 4- to 4.5-point favorites. I think the Lions will win, but the 49ers are coming off a big win and may be a little tougher to handle than Detroit would like. The team will be prepared for this game; the one to watch is the next, where overconfidence could be an issue. Detroit, 27-24.

Last week: predicted 31-16, actual 24-13.

Current mood: cautiously optimistic

NFL Week 5: Byes begin

Miami and St. Louis have much-needed weeks off, but lose ground to Indianapolis in the chase for the top pick. Cleveland is at .500 and in dead last in the AFC North. Washington and Baltimore keep their first-place positions, and Tony Romo fails to lead the Cowboys to victory yet again.
  • Monday Night Football returned to Detroit as this time a national audience got to see the Lions' third consecutive comeback from a halftime deficit. In this case, though, there wasn't much to fear. The defense didn't force any turnovers, but they gave up just one touchdown, and after a third-quarter sequence of Chicago punt, Detroit TD, Chicago punt, Detroit TD, the game was effectively over. The Lions haven't looked as solid in the last three games as they did in the first two, but there's no shame in being the second-best undefeated team in the league. The running game still isn't there, and Stafford has cooled off a bit, but the defense is still solid, and if Nick Fairley can make contributions on the defensive line, the offense may not have to get better.
  • Jay Cutler did a masterful job of staying alive against the Lions, getting sacked only three times and not turning the ball over once. He's doing the best he can in a horrible situation. Martz doesn't appear capable of making adjustments to his scheme, and Chicago continues to demonstrate that they don't have the personnel (aside from the QB and Forte) to run that kind of offense. Add that to Lovie Smith's questionable decision-making, and it's hard to see the Bears at .500 this season. The Lions have stopped opponents nearly 80% of the time in short-yardage situations, and yet the Bears continue to try to run on them, even though they convert only half of those attempts in general. This offense isn't good enough to afford to throw away possessions; Lovie needs to kick a little more often. (I know, it's odd for a Football Outsiders reader to suggest kicking on fourth and short, but the idea is not that you always go for it, but that you take into account your team's ability as well as the general percentages. If you can't run the ball, don't run in those situations.)
  • There's no shame in losing at Buffalo these days, but at some point, I think it's OK to question whether or not there's a chance for the Eagles to pull out of this slump. This week's game against Washington could be the nail in the coffin for the over-hyped "Dream Team": a loss would drop Philadelphia 3.5 games behind Washington and give them an 0-2 division record. There are already 11 NFC teams with better records than the Eagles; while the Lions may not continue to lead the pack, they're certainly setting a fast pace, and it's not yet clear that this Eagles team can do better than .500 – a record that wouldn't catch Detroit and might not take the second spot either. 
  • The Bills have a balanced offense, a competent defense, decent special teams, and wins over Oakland, New England, and Philadelphia. The bad news is that they still have to visit the Giants, Jets, Chargers, and Patriots. To win the division, they might have to split those games. If Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to run the offense efficiently, a split might be a worst-case scenario: all four of the teams above have questions in at least one aspect of their play, and the Bills may be able to take advantage of them.
  • Three weeks ago, the Chiefs looked like the worst team in the league. Now, they look like the worst 2-3 team in the league. Wins over Minnesota and Indianapolis make their record better, but it's hard to get excited about either game. Ripping the depleted Colts secondary should be an expectation, and it's hard to understand how Kansas City can fall behind this team by 17, leaving Pierre Garçon open for two touchdowns a week after Tampa Bay decided it wasn't necessary to cover him. The Chiefs' remaining schedule is fourth-hardest in the NFL, and it's unlikely Todd Haley will be around to complete it.
  • Curtis Painter finally showed that he might be the right guy to keep Peyton's spot warm, ripping Kansas City for a 99.1% passing DVOA, but again we saw that the problem was not the quarterback position in the first place. The Colts have posted a positive (meaning bad) pass defense DVOA every week this year, and in the last couple of weeks, both halves of the defense played poorly enough that neither game should have been contested. (The Colts did well to lose by only 7 to the Bucs.) Indianapolis fans wishing for Andrew Luck might do well to consider that drafting a young QB only helps if he's eventually going to start: imagine what would have happened if the Packers had caved into QB Redacted's demands: Aaron Rodgers could be part of a title-winning team in another city, just as sixth-round pick Matt Hasselbeck eventually left for Seattle. If Peyton comes back, there's no guarantee he'll be willing to step aside when Luck is ready ... and even if he does, what kind of line will be in place to protect him?
  • Soooooo ... I guess Kevin Kolb isn't quite ready to turn things around in Arizona? The Cardinals look just as bad as they did last year, if not worse, and with San Francisco off to a good start, it doesn't look as though there will be a chance to steal this division with an 8-8 record. About the only thing the Cardinals can do well is run the ball, and in the Year of the Pass, that doesn't really matter much. I don't know how often teams trade notable players and then both suffer as a result, but I don't think you can say that the Kolb-for-Rodgers-Cromartie trade has helped either Philadelphia or Arizona noticeably.
  • For one week, at least, Minnesota is not who we thought they were. However, the Vikings are still out of contention in the North, four games back and unlikely to catch anyone, and despite appearances, their first five games have been significantly easier than most other teams' (29th in past schedule strength). Minnesota visits struggling Chicago next week, then plays Green Bay and Carolina before the bye. It's hard to see them at better than 2-6 after those games, and 1-7 seems more likely, with the Panthers game on the road. McNabb continues to be woefully inaccurate (10 for 21 against Arizona, just 56.4% for the season), and it's hard to see the Vikings winning if he isn't able to improve his game.
  • Seattle's still a bad team, but forcing five turnovers is a good way to steal a win, and if Tarvaris Jackson is out for any length of time, the Seahawks may have a chance to right their ship. Jackson has been just as bad in Seattle as his detractors predicted, and if Charlie Whitehurst's performance in New York wasn't a fluke, Seattle might end up with a mediocre offense to match their run-of-the-mill defense. San Francisco isn't out of reach yet, but they're setting a pace that will likely require more than a 7-9 record for Seattle to repeat as division champions.
  • The Giants are looking more like a team of smoke and mirrors. With their early-season schedule, easiest in the league, New York should be 5-0; instead, they're 3-2, with losses to surprising Washington and puzzling Seattle. The Giants also have the toughest remaining schedule of any team, with remaining games against six  first-place teams (New England, Buffalo, Washington, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Green Bay), Tom Coughlin may wish that they hadn't let those early games slip away. It isn't hard to picture this team going 7-9, not when you see that their best win so far is over a Philadelphia team that doesn't look anything like what the media predicted for them.
  • Tennessee didn't look very good at Pittsburgh, sacking Slow Ben Roethlisberger just once and allowing the Steelers to convert 7 of 12 third-down opportunities. The AFC South is down this year, but that doesn't mean the Titans have enough of a cushion to let winnable games get away from them so quickly. It's one thing to have a pass-heavy attack (which, by the way, I like in Tennessee: it's obvious they couldn't win consistently with a run-oriented game), but it's another to rely on it when you're down 21-3 or 28-3. It's much easier to pass when the other team isn't sure what you'll be doing, and few coaches in the NFL will run the ball much when behind by four scores.
  • The Steelers needed a win against a decent team, after getting thumped by the Ravens and held to 10 by the Texans. Pittsburgh's played pretty well despite that opening-week result, and they're quietly lurking behind the Ravens in a pack of 3-2 teams across the AFC. With Jacksonville and Arizona next, Pittsburgh should be 5-2 going into a key stretch of games against New England, Baltimore, and Cincinnati: 5-5 may put the Steelers in chase mode, with no chance to win the division and little chance to catch the AFC East runner-up for the top wild-card spot. 
  • New Orleans looks like a less extreme version of New England: not quite as good on offense, not quite as bad on defense. There's every reason to believe they'll be 9-1 coming into their bye week; that would effectively wrap up the South (giving them a sweep of Tampa Bay plus no less than a three-game lead over the Bucs), and then a Giants-Lions-Tennessee sequence that should give Sean Payton an idea of any areas to improve going into the playoffs. It's hard to picture New Orleans not getting a first-round bye, and they'll want to patch up some holes in their game before they welcome the NFC East or West winner ... I'm not sure there would be two wild-card teams capable of knocking off division champions.
  • Carolina still isn't a very good team, but at least they're not dreadful. Cam Newton has done a fine job of turning around the Panthers' offense; now they just need to fix the defense in the same fashion. Carolina can keep the score close in just about every game right now, but they simply can't get enough stops to win many games. New Orleans was 12 of 17 on third-down conversions, but they only needed two of those on their 13-play, 89-yard game-winning drive. Yes, some of that was probably a prevent-type defense, but that's a problem Carolina has had all season, allowing opponents to convert 43% of their third-down attempts. They've forced only 5 turnovers as well – only Miami, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans have forced fewer. I'm not sure that Newton can continue to keep the Panthers close in these games unless the defense starts to make more plays.
  • Cincinnati should beat Indianapolis and move to 4-2 going into their bye week, and that's probably better than most Bengals fans would have predicted. As with San Francisco and Detroit, Cincinnati's surprising start has been built on defense. With the unexpected decline of the AFC South, the AFC North suddenly looks like a division of strength, with the NFC West helping to pad their records as they fight for playoff spots. The Bengals won't play Baltimore until November 20, or Pittsburgh until the week before that, so it will be a while before we have an idea of their relative strength in their division, but they could well be in the thick of things when they enter a four-game stretch against AFC North opponents (with Cleveland and the return game with Pittsburgh rounding out that block).
  • The Jaguars simply aren't any good. They should be 1-7 at the halfway point, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect an interim coach to be leading Jacksonville when they return to visit Indianapolis in Week 10. Once again, weather conspired to make things difficult for Blaine Gabbert, but at some point, if he isn't able to produce, Jack Del Rio isn't going to have much to justify his decision to cut Garrard prior to the regular season, even if it is better in the long run to give Gabbert experience. QBs these days don't seem to need as much experience on the sidelines prior to seeing game action; I suspect a good bit of this is the rise of the spread offense in the college game, giving quarterbacks the opportunity to run some of the same plays that they'll run in the pros. 
  • Hue Jackson called for a two-point attempt after an Oakland touchdown in the second quarter. Proof that Al Davis' spirit lives on? Most likely. The Raiders' offense has been surprisingly effective through four games, but it's not nearly as easy to throw for two due to the lack of space the secondary has to cover. It didn't hurt the Raiders, as a kick would have left them with a six-point lead at the end and most likely a loss if the Texans scored a touchdown, but I'm not really a fan of going for two until it's clear that you need to. I just don't think there are that many teams who can take two yards when they need them, and it's too easy to end up "chasing" those points by missing your first two-point attempt and then feeling you have to keep going for two to make up for that miss.
  • The Texans are about to find out how much they'll miss Mario Williams. Road games against Baltimore and Tennessee will challenge Houston's pass defense, which was pretty good with Williams but may suffer without that outside pass rush threat. Acquiring Derrick Mason may help to make up for Andre Johnson's absence, but it may not be enough, and it would be unfortunate for the Texans to find themselves stuck at 3-4 in a conference where 10 wins may be the cutoff for a playoff spot. 
  • Well, Tampa Bay now has two losses to teams who look pretty good and three wins over teams who don't look that good. In other words, they're perfectly suited for that middle area between contending teams and those already looking forward to the draft. If they can't put together a decent performance against New Orleans, they might as well start looking at wild-card spots, or perhaps "spot", given that Detroit is 5-0 and has a win over the Bucs. New Orleans has a significantly easier schedule than Tampa Bay, so even a split probably isn't enough to give the Bucs hope of a division title.
  • Just as Tampa Bay's stock is falling, San Francisco's is rising. The NFC West jokes may still apply to the other three teams in the division, and Alex Smith may never be a solid quarterback, but the 49ers' defense is looking better and better each week, and if it weren't for that overtime loss to Dallas, we might be hearing talk about the West practically being locked up. That defense will get tested, though, in a visit to Detroit. A loss may raise questions about San Francisco's playoff hopes; a win would validate them and also give them plenty of momentum heading into their bye.
  • Speaking of weak West divisions, San Diego might be the worst 4-1 team in football, if not also in recent history. The Chargers couldn't stop New England's passing attack and have yet to play another decent team. Special teams aren't disastrous like last season, but they're not great, and neither the offense nor the defense looks good enough to make a playoff run. The Chargers face a solid defense in the Jets after the bye, then the Chiefs, but after that, Green Bay and Oakland should give San Diego the chance to prove that their defense can make something happen in January.
  • So TIM TEBOW is now QB AWESOME in Denver, I see. He "led" the Broncos' comeback against San Diego, pulling Denver within 2 despite completing just 4 of 10 passes. Yes, Orton has thrown quite a few interceptions this season, but the passing attack is far from Denver's only problem, and Tebow really hasn't shown the ability to be anything other than Just A Guy at QB; that kind of player isn't going to rescue a team in need of help at so many other positions. (Protip: to position your team to draft high in the first round, hire someone from the Belichick coaching tree. Works nearly every time.) On the other hand, at least it'll help to quiet the fools who are convinced that TIM TEBOW will lead the Broncos to an 18 and -2 record and five Super Bowl wins this year.
  • At some point, Rex Ryan will have to concede two things. One is that his Jets are never going to win a Super Bowl, and the other is that Mark Sanchez is never going to run a solid NFL offense. This is a guy who's completing 54-57% of his passes in a scaled-down offense in an era where the median percentage is around 61% and 65% only gets you into the top quartile. I'm not trying to suggest that Mark Brunell should start against Miami, but I will say that after that game, the Jets face San Diego, Buffalo, and New England, and after that stretch, there should be no question about the Jets' playoff hopes. (Is this an appropriate time to start questioning USC quarterbacks in general? Carson Palmer had one good season in Cincinnati, but Matt Leinart was an out-and-out flop, Matt Cassel had one decent season in Kansas City so far, and Sanchez has been poor at best – he's lucky that so many defenders dropped sure interceptions of his last year.)
  • Right now, the only question about New England is whether or not their offense can score enough to make up for the bad games the defense is having. Dallas, Pittsburgh, and both New York teams should provide a reasonable test for Brady and the monstrous Patriot offense, but New England will have to learn from archrival Indianapolis: you can only win a Super Bowl with a bad defense if, at playoff time, it completely forgets it's a bad defense. The Patriots can't afford any missteps, either, not with the Bills keeping pace with them at the top of the AFC East. Good teams do win road games, but no one wants to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl, and Indianapolis is one of the few cities where "neutral" fans are most certainly going to be rooting against New England ... a Super Bowl appearance would be as close to a true road game as they'd be likely to get. 
  • Green Bay struggled a bit against a weak Atlanta pass defense, which is interesting. The Packers will likely be 10-0 going into their Thanksgiving game with Detroit, which could actually turn out to be a showdown of NFC contenders. The Lions aren't likely to be 10-0 at that point as well, but they'll certainly have a good record, and if the Packers stumble, the Lions could force Aaron Rodgers to throw on the road in the playoffs. (That might not bother Green Bay's offense much, but Detroit's offense would probably prefer indoor home games to outdoor road games.) For now, though, Mike McCarthy's team will focus on knocking off weaker opponents, and that should be no problem with St. Louis and Minnesota up before the Packers' bye week.
  • The Falcons just don't have it this year. Their losses to Chicago and Tampa Bay look less and less impressive each week, as does their win over Philadelphia, and Seattle is a bad team no matter what the Giants have to say about it. A contending Atlanta team would be 4-1 at this point, looking to keep pace with New Orleans atop the South; this team could end up 2-5, as Carolina is no pushover and playing in Detroit is much less fun for opponents this season than it has been in the past. The offensive line has been unimpressive, the defense isn't getting a good pass rush, the secondary isn't stopping opposing quarterbacks, and Matt Ryan is looking less and less like a quarterback who deserves a real nickname rather than the feeble one he's got and more like Just A Guy. Perhaps, like Miami, the Falcons' turnaround was just a one-season wonder.
We're not yet far enough in to make concrete statements about most teams, but we are starting to see a few teams pull away from the pack, if only for playoff positioning, and a few teams are sinking to the bottom, unlikely to rise. In a couple of weeks, we should be able to eliminate a group of teams from playoff contention and look a little more closely at top teams to see how they might fare in the playoffs.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 5

Again, a win is good, but struggling initially against a good team is not (assuming Dallas is a good team; if they aren't, this is worse).

First, to updated Massey projections:
Week 5: Chicago, heavy favorite (moved up)
Week 6: San Francisco, heavy favorite
Week 7: Atlanta, heavy favorite
Week 8: at Denver, favorite
Week 9: bye
Week 10: at Chicago, slight favorite (moved up)
Week 11: Carolina, overwhelming favorite
Week 12: Green Bay, slight underdog
Week 13: at New Orleans, underdog
Week 14: Minnesota, overwhelming favorite (moved up)
Week 15: at Oakland, slight favorite (moved up)
Week 16: San Diego, heavy favorite
Week 17: at Green Bay, heavy underdog

Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.

You won't see all the movement that actually happens because I'm not including the actual percentage each time: for that, I encourage you to visit his site. Notice that even with the close win, four games moved, including the Week 10 game flipping to a slight win for Detroit. They are underdogs in only three games now. Expected wins are now 11.8, which is almost a full win better than last week, but still well back of Green Bay. It's fair to say that 8-0 is now an expectation, especially with the next three games being home games in which Detroit is a heavy favorite. Best case is probably still 14-2, worst case is probably 10-6.

Defense adjustments make their first appearance in FO's data. The Playoff Odds report puts the Lions at 10.8 mean wins, up from last week but not by much; an 84% chance of a playoff spot, up 2.2%; 34.7% for a division title, down 4.8%; 20.3% for the #1 seed, down 4%; 13.7% for a Super Bowl appearance, down 3.3%; and 6% for a Super Bowl win, down 1.8%. They are also 0.7% to go 15-1, up 0.1%.

12-4 still seems about right, with a win at Chicago. The Oakland game might not be a loss, but then the Lions have been playing 30 minutes of good football in three of their four games and gotten away with it. At some point, they'll play a team that can play 60 minutes.

The big thing here will be to win the games they are expected to win. That's difficult for a young team, but what I like about this team is that they are not doing cartwheels for being 4-0. They seem to be approaching it like yeah, we're 4-0, we expect to win. A team like that should stay focused against weaker opponents like Chicago and San Francisco.

Massey likes the Lions by about 8.5. Vegas has Detroit between -5 and -6. I like the Lions as well, although I'll probably be in the car for half the game and asleep in my bed for the other half. Detroit, 31-16.

Current mood: hopeful

NFL Week 4: And then there were two ...

It was the last full week before byes began (remember when teams might have a bye in Week 3?), but some teams didn't get the memo and left early. The Colts probably wish they could have a bye, or at least some healthy players, while the Packers might want to remove the bye from their schedule. (Note: neither team is actually off this week.)
  • For the second straight week, the Lions completely shut down in the first half; for the second straight week, the Lions mounted an improbable comeback. Two years ago, Detroit's defense had just 9 interceptions. This year, through 4 games, they have 7. Sure, some of those have been on the quarterback in question, but a good number of them have come as a result of pressure. Despite what Cris Collinsworth thinks, you can't simply turtle at halftime, especially not with Stafford and Johnson finding single coverage wherever they need it: you must throw the ball, and you must do it carefully. (Besides, the Lions are once again near the top of the NFL in power run defense – 2nd in power success and 7th in stuffs through 4 weeks – so conservative play calls aren't going to work.)
  • TonyRomoTonyRomoTonyRomo. I know. But the Cowboys managed no sacks of Stafford (the third Lions opponent to be shut out), and you already know that on the clinching touchdown, the Cowboys had 12 players on the field, and only one was covering Megatron. The problems in Dallas are not just at QB ... and as with other teams, there simply are no comparable options. Do Cowboys fans chanting for change realize that Jon Kitna is 39 years old and has thrown 2 interceptions in 10 passes this season? Romo's making bad decisions, but he is what you have. Better to learn to work with him than to swap him for someone most likely worse.
  • What goes around comes around: Pittsburgh is being beaten by teams with good defense and running games and James Harrison is sidelined indefinitely after another helmet-to-helmet collision. (While I hesitate to wish ill of anyone, Harrison deserves such an injury more than most, simply from his insistence on breaking rules and endangering fellow NFLPA members. If the union will not stand up for the victims, then it's up to karma to take care of Harrison. I hope he makes a complete physical recovery, but can never play football again.) The Steelers' OL has been savaged by injuries, so Roethlisberger's insistence on holding the ball to make a play is costing them bigtime. Five sacks in 35 dropbacks ... Pittsburgh's overall ASR is 9.3%, but it doesn't all come from the backup linemen. Their QB needs to learn to get rid of the ball more quickly, or else Mike Tomlin will be choosing someone from the Backup Carousel.
  • One of the NFL's best offenses took a big hit when Andre Johnson went down with a hamstring injury. Schaub has a number of weapons he can use, but he's certainly favored Johnson this year: just over one third of his completions have gone to Johnson. This isn't like the running game, where a good line allows you to use back after back and get solid production; someone's going to have to step up and be the primary threat in the passing game. (Owen Daniels is a solid TE, but Houston needs a WR to carry the load; Daniels can't open up the defense the way Johnson could.)
  • Carolina might actually have borrowed Auburn's offensive playbook from last year. It remains to be seen how often the Panthers can run the midline read, or variations on it, and keep Cam Newton intact, but if there is a QB in the league built for that kind of offense, it's Newton. The rookie has taken the worst offense in the NFL and boosted it to 9th; unfortunately, the defense is still bad and the special teams are worse. No team can be safely rebuilt in a year (see the Dolphins for proof of that), and of course there's no way to be sure that Newton will be as productive in December as he is now, but Panthers fans must have a great deal more hope now than when they thought their new young starting QB would be Jimmy Clausen. (Dear Notre Dame fans: you were completely wrong.)
  • Sorry to interrupt the euphoria in Chicago, but Sunday's game is not proof of a revitalized offense. What you saw was Carolina's defense making everything work for the Bears. The one thing the OL does well is block in power situations (100%, actually, tops in the league); 33% of their runs have been stuffed, their ASR is a whopping 10.8%, and Cutler's DYAR is worse than virtually everyone else in the league. The offense isn't very good, the defense isn't very good, and when teams stop kicking to Devin Hester, special teams won't be able to carry the team. Up next for the Bears: Detroit, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and after the bye, Philadelphia, Detroit again, San Diego, and Oakland. Cutler may not survive that run, and even if he does, the Bears will likely have no more illusions about repeating their NFC Championship appearance.
  • Minnesota isn't really that bad, you know. They just keep giving games away. OK, you're right, I don't believe that either. The Vikings just aren't very good. They can't keep expecting 150+ from Peterson combined with a couple of rainbows from McNabb. The aging Syracuse veteran passed his prime long ago, and we're already seeing signs that perhaps what happened in Washington wasn't all on the Shanahans. Minnesota is already 4 games off the pace in the North, behind not one, but two 4-0 teams, and they have yet to play the Packers. Their playoff hopes are effectively over; the purpose for McNabb's presence is gone. Now is the time to start giving Christian Ponder reps, and if McNabb won't cooperate, then deactivate him and make Joe Webb the backup. 
  • On the other hand, there's no question about how bad Kansas City is. Take a bad team, subtract a top player on both offense and defense, take into account the inexperienced head coach, and you have a recipe for disaster. To make matters worse, the Chiefs face the NFC North and AFC East ... while they've beaten Minnesota and have Miami later in the schedule, crushing losses to the Bills and Lions bode ill for games against New England and Green Bay. I would not expect either Haley or Matt Cassel to be in Kansas City next year. Cassel put up gaudy numbers in one full season in New England, but conventional stats hid what advanced metrics did not: Cassel is Just A Guy, and without the weapons he had in New England, he's really not that good ... and this season, he's been worse. (Two side notes: Scott Pioli will likely be done as well, and isn't it interesting how few people leave New England and have any measure of success?)
  • The Bills are likely a playoff-caliber team. With that in mind, the loss to Cincinnati will probably turn out to be one they regret down the road. The AFC is not short on playoff contenders, and if the Bills can't win the division (FO has them with a 32.1% chance of pulling that off), they may well be a 10- or 11-win team on the outside looking in. It's unknown whether or not the Bills can continue to survive in Buffalo – once Ralph Wilson dies, the possibility of moving will rear its head again – so it's good to see that the city may get to see one more shot at a Super Bowl win. Of course, to continue down that road, they'll have to survive their three-week trip through the NFC East. Philadelphia, the Giants, and Washington are up next, and while the Bills have arguably been playing better than all of those teams, they may not be able to afford a loss to any of them. 
  • Cincinnati seems like a Dallas-type team, but to a lesser extent: winning games you thought they might lose, losing games you thought they might win. Andy Dalton is surviving his rookie season, Cedric Benson is having a pretty decent year, the defense is better than expected, and Mike Brown hasn't broken anything yet. It's a shame that the iron hand the NFL wields with respect to its marketing isn't used internally as well. How much stronger would the league be if incompetent owners were bought out by the league? (Obviously they'd be paid back by revenue from the sale of the franchise to the new owner.) 
  • No, I didn't think the Titans would be 3-1 at this point, certainly not if Chris Johnson is having a bad season, but then that underlines the point some of us were making about CJ's demands. Unfortunately for them, RBs are fungible in the modern NFL: there's no point in paying a guy $10M if you can get reasonable performance from someone else for $2M. (You can justify a higher salary by looking at the position as requiring hazard pay, but then shouldn't that apply to just about any position?) Maybe one game is the result of a team keying on Johnson at the expense of the passing game, but I doubt that's true for all four opponents thus far. Seattle's offense isn't any good, Tennessee's offense has taken off ... perhaps Matt Hasselbeck was the guy the Vikings should have pursued.
  • The Redskins are not as good as their record. They barely beat a bad St. Louis team, squeaked past the Cardinals, and blew a game to the Cowboys. Week 1 was the only time they've looked good this season. The Rex Grossman Experience is going to blow up in Shanahan's face (either or both of them). Philadelphia is up next, and the way the Eagles have been playing, this is a game Washington can't afford to lose, not with Carolina, Buffalo, and San Francisco following. 
  • St. Louis is in an unenviable position: they're the favorite for the #1 pick at this point, and yet one of the few teams in the league who should have absolutely no interest in a rookie QB. (Bradford is not nearly what some people think he is – it's amazing how people don't bother to look at number of attempts when evaluating conventional stats – but he's no Jimmy Clausen.) Of course they can trade down, which actually might not be a bad plan no matter where they finish. There are still plenty of holes on this team, and the Rams would do well to follow the Lions' lead and work to fill many of them at once. Offensive line would be a good place to start, especially in a pass-heavy offense. You can't have your QB taking a sack every 10 attempts or so if he's throwing 40 times per game.
  • It's not Alex Smith. It's the defense, special teams, and a favorable schedule. Seattle, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, and the Eagles seem less impressive each week. Of course, you don't have to be any good to win the NFC West, and the 49ers may just do that, but they will not be like Seattle last year. The top wild-card team could well be a 12- or 13-win team that will be mindful of 2010, and playing in San Francisco is not like playing in Seattle. The next two games are home against Tampa Bay and at Detroit; those should give us a better idea of how good San Francisco is compared to the teams they might face in the playoffs.
  • The New Orleans defense still seems to be a little worrying, but the Saints are entering a six-game stretch where the biggest threat is a pair of games against Tampa Bay. Even a split with the Bucs would leave New Orleans at 8-2, in great position for a playoff spot, and a sweep would make them 9-1 with no less than a two-game lead plus the tiebreaker against Tampa Bay. Winning the South may be necessary for a playoff run; with wild-card teams in the NFC also looking good at this point, failure to take the division could mean a road game against the NFC East winner followed by a game at Green Bay ... better to avoid the Packers for as long as possible.
  • Jacksonville is a bad team with a weak fan base and a head coach blissfully unaware of the importance of the QB position. Perhaps Garrard really did make terrible choices in practice, but clearly McCown has been no better in live games, if not significantly worse, and the Jaguars aren't good enough to provide support for a rookie QB. This franchise was given to Florida thanks to smoke and mirrors, but now that the truth is out (Jacksonville simply can't support an NFL team in the best of times, and these are not the best of times, either for the city or the team), it's hard to see this team as anything but the Los Angeles Not-Jaguars. If the team can play in the Rose Bowl or somewhere similar until the downtown stadium is built, this team is gone, and so is Del Rio. (In fact, he might be gone this season.) And why not? If LA wants to go into debt to give a billionaire a playground, let them.
  • The Falcons looked bad in their Week 1 loss to Chicago and really haven't looked impressive since; beating the Eagles isn't nearly what it should have been, and when you see the yards and points they gave up to bad offenses (the Bears and Seattle), it's fair to question whether or not this is a playoff team. Matt Ryan is alternating between good seasons and average seasons (I'd blame his stupid nickname, but then he had it after his rookie season), the running game is below par yet again (or about 1/100th of what Madden 11 and Madden 12 think it should be; then again, EA killed any chance of producing realistic sims when they moved to arcade-style play, prizing button-mashing over tactics), and the Falcons have the misfortune to be in a division with two contenders and also playing an NFC division with two contenders (the NFC North). Should Atlanta lose at Detroit, they may find it difficult to get an invitation to the postseason party unless they can drag the Buccaneers back to third, and that will be difficult given their Week 3 loss to Tampa Bay.
  • The Pete Carroll era peaked with that playoff victory over New Orleans; what's left for Seattle is a sharp decline into the Millen Pit, where double-digit losses and high draft positions await. Carroll has always been an overrated coach: he took a good New England team that Bill Parcells built and made it into a mediocre one; while he revived a sputtering USC program, he did so in a weak conference, and there are questions as to how much of what he did, if any, was legitimate, given that he took off for the NFL as soon as sanctions were threatened; and he's now taken a mediocre Seahawks team, pushed it just enough to steal a weak division title, and replaced a QB who's now putting up solid numbers in Tennessee with a QB who wasn't any good in Minnesota. Seattle might be able to use Andrew Luck, but is there enough help to make him a worthwhile pick, and if not, will Carroll understand this and acquire that help? I'm afraid the answers are no and no.
  • The pain of the season-opening loss to the Redskins is fading quickly as the Giants have quickly moved to 3-1 (which should be 4-1 with Seattle coming up), but upon closer inspection, there isn't a lot to be excited about. New York has had the easiest schedule through four weeks by quite a bit, and their remaining schedule is the toughest in the league. Miami and Philadelphia at home are the only remaining games after the Seattle game that should pose little threat, and even then, there is the possibility that the Eagles will have worked out their problems by then. Combine that schedule with the strength in the North and South, and the Giants might miss the playoffs if they can't win the division. Their margin of error against Dallas, Washington, and Philadelphia will be quite small.
  • There are three things we can say about the Cardinals: losing their best defensive player hurt the defense significantly; getting a competent QB hasn't helped the passing game nearly as much as you'd think; playing in the NFC West means that the first two things may not matter. Beanie Wells is running like NCAA investigators are chasing him, and if that's enough to get Arizona past San Francisco twice, they could well be the second 7-9 team to snatch a playoff berth. A win over a struggling Minnesota team would be a good step toward getting back into playoff contention, and with a lot of winnable games on the Cardinals' schedule, they could well be meeting the 49ers around Thanksgiving for the West title.
  • Hello, Indian- er, New England. The Patriots seem to have borrowed a page from the Colts: build an unstoppable offense and it won't matter if your defense is terrible. The fact that they gave up 24 points to what looks like a bad Miami team is a major cause for concern: losing to Buffalo is, as of yet, not at all something to be ashamed of, but with the Jets, Dallas, and Pittsburgh coming up, if New England can't start playing defense now, they'll have, uh ... few problems with the rest of their schedule. It's actually pretty soft in terms of opposing offenses. The Giants, maybe the Eagles, the Bills again, and a bunch of nothing. So maybe Belichick was right again: if the teams you face generally don't have good offenses, why worry about defense? (The possibility of the Patriots giving up 50 points in a playoff game, though, has to be an enticing thought for the anti-Belichick crowd.)
  • So hey! Jason Campbell doesn't suck. Actually, he's ... 12th in ANY/A and 10th in DYAR, and the rushing offense is a solid 1st, so maybe Crazy Al did something right by accident. The defense isn't very good, but see Arizona for an explanation of that. Oakland looks to get battered by Houston's offense this week, but they have Cleveland and Kansas City at home prior to the bye, so this should be a 4-3 team heading into November. The Raiders will likely have to win the West to make the playoffs (FO gives them a 1-in-3 shot to win the division, but a 1-in-20 shot to get in as a wild card), so their games against San Diego, including the season finale in Oakland, could make the difference.
  • So I'm all like "it's not Kyle Orton" and as if to prove my point, the Broncos' defense gets pummeled, but then it's Green Bay's offense, and they do that a lot. Actually, it does look like the Denver offense is struggling, but it's more the offensive line than the QB. The Broncos are dead last in power success (20%), and while they don't get stuffed much, they don't get big gains either. Second-level and open-field yards, strengths of the team prior to Josh McDaniels completely destroying the offense, are now weaknesses. It may take John Fox a couple of years to rebuild the line, and by then, either Orton will be gone (to a city that will appreciate what he can do), or Tebow will be gone (to prove that he really can't be an NFL QB).
  • Did you know that Aaron Rodgers just set an NFL record that we just made up? Yes he did. (Devin Hester broke a record that people care about. What Rodgers did was just put numbers together in a certain way.) Sure, Rodgers has put up some awesome numbers, but he's played four bottom-half defenses so far (although New Orleans is in the top 16 pass defenses). Atlanta is a little better, but their pass defense isn't as good as the Saints. Rodgers may not face an adequate test until ... Detroit??? (Did I just say that? But it's true: the Lions are 4th in pass defense and 3rd overall.) The Packers are a virtual lock for the playoffs at this point; the only concern is what most teams fear, an injury to their starting QB. Don't forget that last year, the Packers scored 3 points against a Lions' defense much worse than this one ... and unlike Detroit, Green Bay has a backup who has been tested and found wanting. 
  • Tony Sparano has run out of time. It's become obvious that 2008 was a fluke and that the Dolphins simply can't compete week in and week out with the beasts in the East (and that group now includes Buffalo). The Wildcat, like every other formation in NFL history, is no longer new enough to trick any but the worst coordinators, so it relies on talent and execution, neither of which exists in excess in Miami; with Henne out, the Dolphins will be relying on a guy who couldn't wrest the starting job from Jimmy Clausen; and even if Moore can play well, that won't fix the huge problems on defense. This is not a good year to struggle against the pass, and the Dolphins have done that in spades. Fortunately, the AFC East plays the NFC East, so Miami gets the Rex Grossman Experience, a 50/50 shot at Bad Tony, and Mike Kafka (because we all know Vick isn't going to be healthy in December). Unfortunately, Dallas is one of six games Miami has against top-10 passing attacks ... 0-16 is unlikely, but I doubt Miami will win more than 4 games.
  • In another year, San Diego would be out in front of the West again, looking to cruise to a division title, especially with Kansas City crippled. This season, though, Antonio Gates isn't (and might never be) healthy, the defense isn't great, and while special teams have improved, they simply moved from atrocious to not good. Vincent Jackson is the only receiver doing anything; Mike Tolbert's helped out a bit, but someone has to catch some of the passes that Gates would, and that's not happening yet. The offense will have to score some points while the other units slowly improve ... actually, with Green Bay, Detroit, and Oakland (twice) on the schedule, the defense will have to improve significantly, especially with the Raiders right behind the Chargers. The non-East wild card (if there is one) may be coming from the South this season, so Norv needs to get these things fixed now.
  • The Jets' offense is terrible. Mark Sanchez, by virtue of playing in New York, is the most overrated QB in football, perhaps even in recent memory. He's incapable of running even a basic offense well, although in his defense, the offensive line hasn't played that well, and the running game is completely nonexistent. Defense and special teams will only get you so far. The Collinsworth remark above came from his comment on Sunday night that the Ravens should stop passing and just run the ball with the lead in the third quarter; if the Jets get a lead like that, even if it were a good idea in general, it wouldn't be feasible for them, because Shonn Greene just can't find any holes, and neither McKnight (hey look, another overrated USC running back!) nor Tomlinson (who is not LT, fools; that man played defense for the Giants) does much better. The Jets will play themselves out of a playoff spot, and once again, Rex Ryan will discover that his bluster cannot hide the glaring weaknesses on his team.
  • The Ravens need a win against Houston after their bye week. Everything is set up for them to dominate the North: Pittsburgh's done, Cincinnati isn't quite there (and of course Mike Brown could blow things up at any minute anyway), and Cleveland still isn't a threat. However, the Bengals and Steelers are right behind Baltimore, and one unexpected loss could make this a race again, even if the Ravens have quality that the others do not. We know the Jets' defense is good, but the way that the Ravens imploded against it was hard to understand ... Baltimore might match up well with the current New England team, but they might not draw the Patriots in the first round, and they need to learn to move the ball against a good defense.
  • Looking at the yardage, you might think Curtis Painter did a hell of a job against Tampa Bay, and in all fairness, the Colts did execute two good plays that kept them in the game ... but you have to keep in mind that Garçon's two catches made up more than half their passing yards. Painter was just 13 of 30 for the game, and while he didn't throw an interception, he did take 4 sacks, and he didn't really move the Colts well (4 of 13 on third downs). The offensive line, actually, hasn't been playing that poorly: they're doing pretty well on running plays, and their ASR is bottom-half, but not by much. Attribute a good bit of that to Collins' lack of familiarity with the offense and inability to get rid of the ball, which is something Painter seems to share. The left side of the line, in particular, has done really well on run blocking, so you might see some more stretch plays against Kansas City and Cincinnati to get the safeties to give Painter some room to throw. The Chiefs might be just what the Colts need ... but they do have to play well to beat Kansas City, as Minnesota just found out.
  • For a change, it's the Bucs' defense that isn't playing well. Josh Freeman is doing a good job with the passing game, special teams are really good ... but wow, Tampa Bay has been lousy against the pass. Two of their next four games are against New Orleans, and then they play Houston, Green Bay, Tennessee, and Carolina, so if Raheem Morris can't get those problems fixed, the Bucs could easily be 6-6 or worse when the stretch is complete.
After four weeks, total and offensive DVOA comprise over half of the variability you'll see in end-of-season DVOA. That doesn't mean that Buffalo, Tennessee, Oakland, and Detroit are all playoff locks, but it does mean that they probably aren't going to go 4-12 ... not this year, anyway.
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